Playwriting: a few notes and comments

A few years back I wrote a play called “Dinners With Augie,” which I have produced three times. Most recently in Tucson Arizona.  The notes below are a distillation of what I’ve learned from writing and producing that play, as well as other plays I’ve written that have not been produced (one is allowed to learn from failure.)

The most important thing I can say about writing plays is pay attention to the actors. I began writing plays a few years ago, and how I read, and how I view dramatic performances (movies or stage) has changed.  Once I began to actually see and hear how actors were reacting to what I was writing changed the way I listen and how I see the events on the stage, screen, or page. I became more sensitive not only to the processes of defining and creating scripts, but I developed different ways of appreciating dramatic arts.

These days the particular thing I look for in a dramatic performance is what kind of emotional range the actor is demonstrating.  I think the hardest thing for an actor to get right isn’t anger, or strength or courage or eccentricity, it’s vulnerability.  There’s a tipping point, a very fine line, between being openly fragile, and just being weak.  Sometimes vulnerability is the point, and sometimes being weak is  the point, but the two shouldn’t be confused.

I would offer as examples Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth in “Come Back Little Sheba” or Clark Gable’s character in “The Misfits” (particularly near the end of the movie) or for a more recent example Nicole Kidman in “Dogville” (an outstanding piece of work, note the scene near the end with the glass figurines.)

Now when I read a novel or script or short story, I’m not very tolerant of what I consider lazy writing. Too many authors take the easy way out.  Usually the endings are the problem, which tells me the author really didn’t have anything to say, or the problem is that the characters are cardboard cutouts, not just too familiar, but phony.  Familiarity isn’t the problem, because sometimes that’s the point, that we’ve seen these characters in our day-to-day lives, the problem is that the writer isn’t really infusing the character with a life of their own.

Put another way, I recommend avoiding self-indulgence. Think of it this way: you’ve been invited to a holiday dinner with your favorite Aunts and Uncles, try to be on your best behavior and don’t make the whole dinner about you.  It isn’t. It’s about the interactions with the other guests.  You get to talk, but you have to listen.  The best place to start listening is when the actors are rehearsing.

And every chance you get, ask yourself, “who cares?” as in who cares about what’s going on on the stage? And if you can’t answer that question, those lines are probably not worth keeping. Get rid of them and move on. Because if you’re going to “share a story” the least you can do is respect the audience’s time and effort and share a story they actually care about.

The second most important thing I can say about writing plays is that the script has be strong enough to support the actors on the days (or nights) when their energy is low.  Actors have up nights, and down nights.  Look for those low energy performances, and if your impression is that the show is dragging, that you’re losing the audience, it’s probably the script. My experience is that audiences will forgive a dropped line here and there, or a few obvious improvisations, but they don’t forgive being bored.

I think a strong script has two essential qualities: it makes a point that the audience can identify (typically through story telling) and the actors can actually portray the character in the play.  It’s more then just the actors reading the lines, memorizing them, and saying them. There has to be a rhythm in the language that they can get their minds around.  Most of all, there has to be a reason those lines are being said — from the character’s perspective.

The third most important thing I can say is that readings will only take you so far.  About 10% of the way.  Actually seeing the play staged before a live, paying audience will provide the best opportunity for understanding the strengths and weakness of the play.

The construct of the play is a action and dialog. What you are doing as a playwright is to provide context for those elements.  “Context” could be story, but not always.  I think of context as the framework that the audience experiences during the performance.

Putting this all together another way, and putting aside all discussions about the technical details of how to create drama and construct dialog, I think the best way to start out to write a play isn’t to ask “how” but rather “why.”

For details on “Dinners With Augie” visit www.dinnerswithaugie.com.

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